Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, is among the most unusual books I’ve read. It doesn’t fit into the types of books I normally read; while I love historical fiction, it’s only recently that my interest in fantasy and magical realism started growing. However, even here, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock doesn’t neatly fall into the fantasy or magical realism genres, despite its title. Instead, it’s a realistic look at 1780s England with hints of magic here and there, hovering just in the background and driving the plot.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock depicts the story of a merchant, Jonah Hancock, who one day comes into possession of a tiny, terrifying mermaid. But don’t imagine Ariel or enchanting sirens in the sea: this mermaid is monstrous – with pointy teeth and claws – and dead. It sets off a series of events, leading Mr. Hancock into the world of novelty displays and introducing him to a courtesan named Angelica Neal. The story weaves together a multitude of characters and themes, side stories and the main plot interchanging as the tides shift.
Perhaps the most captivating element of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is its stunning prose. Imogen has not only crafted a story set in a richly described 1780s London, her writing feels as though it was actually written in the 1780s. Her use of language is convincingly 18th century, further immersing the reader in its intended setting. Moreover, Imogen’s writing is lyrical and engaging, making the story even more mesmerizing. This is only her first novel, and already her writing style promises more to look for in her follow-up books.
However, where the language succeeded, other elements of the novel were less steady. The plot is often meandering, lazily moving along with no clear direction or sense of urgency propelling it forward. At first, the events do lead naturally into the ones that follow, but about halfway through the book, the story gets a bit lost. The turns don’t feel as natural, and some subplots are either untidily brushed to the side or never tied up at all. This is, in part, because of the numerous characters and side stories here.
Some characters take on larger roles early in the book only to be all but forgotten in later chapters. Mr. Hancock’s niece, Sukie, is a strong character in the first part of the book, but her presence sadly diminishes in the second. Polly, a black courtesan at the same brothel from which Angelica emerged, also has a fascinating but brief story arc, and is completely abandoned in the last part of the novel. Even the outcomes of minor characters like Simeon, Elinor, George Rockingham, and Eliza Frost don’t feel fully finished or even realistic. For many of these characters, their plots leave too many questions and much to be desired.
The characterization of the main characters also felt a bit unstable in the last part of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Both Jonah Hancock and Angelica Neal have distinct personalities at the outset, but their characters lose definition and become more muddled towards the end. They feel less like themselves and more like shells of what they once were – which is perhaps the point, given the effects of their mermaid. But we never find closure with Mr. Hancock’s hauntings over his stillborn son, Henry. We never get a full look at Angelica Neal’s past – or even what her name was before she entered Mrs. Chappell’s brothel. We never get a good sense of how Mr. and Mrs. Hancock are as a couple, in spite of their many differences.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is an intriguing book, if a bit unfocused. The first two parts were excellent, and while the final third felt rushed and incomplete, it does leave room for a potential sequel. Imogen Hermes Gowar is an incredible writer whose language fully immerses readers in her 1780s setting. In this way especially, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock succeeds in transporting readers to another time and place, making it a memorable read.